American Historic Towns
Historic Towns of New England
Edited by Lyman P. Powell
G. P. Putnam's Sons
New York and London
The Knickerbocker Press
By SAMUEL A. ELIOT
"There is no place like it, no, not even for taxes."
Lowel's Letters, ii., 102.
THE early history of New England seems to many minds dry and unromantic. No mist of distance softens the harsh outlines, no mirage of tradition lifts events or characters into picturesque beauty, and there seems a poverty of sentiment. The transplanting of a people breaks the successions and associations of history. No memories of Crusader and Conqueror stir the imagination. Instead of the glitter of chivalry we have but the sombre homespun of Puritan peasants. Instead of the castles and cathedrals on which time has laid a hand of benediction we have but the rude log meeting house and schoolhouse. Instead of Christmas merriment the voice of our past brings to us only the noise of axe and hammer, or the dreary droning of Psalms. It seems bleak, and destitute of poetic inspiration; at once plebeian and prosaic.
But I cannot help feeling that if we look beneath the uncouth exterior we shall find in New England history much idealism, much that can inspire noble daring and feed the springs of romance. Out of the hard soil of the Puritan thought, out of the sterile rocks of the New England conscience, spring flowers of poetry. This story of the planting of Cambridge has, if I might linger on it, a wealth of dramatic interest, not indeed in its antiquity, it is but a story of yesterday, but in the human associations that belong to it and the patriotic memories it stirs. The Cambridge dust is eloquent of the long procession of saints and sages, scholars and poets, whose works and words have made the renown of the place. First the Puritan chiefs of Massachusetts; then the early scholars of the budding commonwealth; then the Tory gentry who made the town in the days before the Revolution the centre of a lavish hospitality, and who maintained a happy social life of which the memories still linger in the beautiful homes which they left behind them; then the patriot army surging about Boston in the exciting year of the siege, with the inspiring traditions of what Washington and Warren and Knox and Greene and the rest did and said; and finally the later associations of our great scholars and men of letters, chief of whom we rank Lowell and Holmes and Longfellow, whose lives were rooted deep in the Cambridge soil and whose dust there endears the sod.
The first figures on our Cambridge stage are those of the leaders of the Massachusetts colony. While Boston was clearly marked for prominence in the colony because of its geographical position, there was not at first the intention to make it the seat of government. It was too open to attack from the sea; a position farther inland could be more easily defended, not indeed from the Indians, but from the enemy most to be dreaded, the warships of an irate and hostile motherland. Accordingly Governor John Winthrop and his assistants, shortly after the planting of Boston, journeyed in the shallop of the ship in which they had come from England, four miles up the Charles River behind Boston until they came to a meadow gently sloping to the riverside, backed by rounded hills and protected by wide spreading salt marshes. There on the 28th of December, 1630, they landed and fixed the seat of their government. To quote the old chronicle:
"They rather made choice to enter further among the Indians than to hazard the fury of malignant adversaries who might pursue them, and therefore chose a place situated upon Charles River, between Charlestown and Watertown, where they erected a towne called Newton, and where they gathered the 8th Church of Christ." It was agreed that the Governor, John Winthrop, the Deputy Governor, Thomas Dudley, and all the councillors, except John Endicott, who had already settled at Salem, should build and occupy houses at Newtowne, but this agreement was never carried out. Winthrop, Dudley and Bradstreet built houses, and the General Court of the colony met alternately at Newtowne and at Boston until 1638, when it finally settled in Boston. Yet in spite of the superior advantages of Boston the new settlement evidently flourished, for in 1633 a traveller, the writer of New England's Prospect, describes the village as "one of the neatest and best compacted towns in New England, having many fair structures, with many handsome contrived streets. The inhabitants, most of them, are rich and well stored with cattle of all sorts."
This is doubtless an extravagant picture and true only in comparison with some of the neighboring plantations which were not so favorably situated. Newtowne was really a crude and straggling settlement made up of some sixty or seventy log cabins or poor frame houses stretching along a road which skirted the river marshes and of which the wanderings were prescribed more by the devious channel of the Charles than by mathematical exactness. The meeting house, built of rough hewn boards with the crevices sealed with mud, stood at the crossing of the road with the path that led down to the river, where there was a ladder for the convenience of landing. So primitive was the place that Thomas Dudley, the chief man of the town, writing home, could say, "I have no table nor any place to write in than by the fireside on my knee." Such was the splendor of the whilom capital of New England.
Like most of the Massachusetts towns, Cambridge began as a church. Though Dudley and Bradstreet and Haynes were high in the councils of the infant commonwealth, holding successively or simultaneously the offices of governor and military chief, yet the leading personality of the village was the minister. The roll of Cambridge ministers begins with the great name of Thomas Hooker, the founder of Connecticut, and the man who first visioned and did much to make possible our American democracy. Hooker, with his congregation from Braintree, in Essex, England, came to Massachusetts in 1632, and after a short stay at Mount Wollaston, settled at Newtowne, raising the population to nearly five hundred souls. But the stay of the Braintree church was short. Some adventurous spirits had penetrated the wilderness of the interior until they discovered the charm and fertility of the valley of the Connecticut, and soon Hooker and his company were impelled by "the strong bent of their spirits" to remove thither. They alleged, in petitioning the General Court for permission to remove, that their cattle were cramped for room in Newtowne, and that it behooved the English colonists to keep the Dutch out of Connecticut; but the real motive of the exodus was doubtless ecclesiastical. Hooker did not find himself altogether in accord with the Boston teacher, John Cotton. "Two such eminent stars," says Hubbard, writing in 1682, "both of the first magnitude, though of different influence, could not well continue in one and the same orb." Hooker took the more liberal side in the antinomian controversy which had already begun to make trouble, and his subsequent conduct of affairs in Connecticut shows that he did not approve the Massachusetts policy of restricting the suffrage to church members. In the spring of 1636, therefore, Hooker and most of his congregation sold their possessions, and driving one hundred and sixty cattle before them, went on their way to the planting of Hartford and the founding of a new commonwealth.
This was the first of many separations by which Cambridge has become the mother of many sturdy children. The original boundaries of the town stretched from Dedham on the south all the way to the Merrimac River on the north. Gradually, by the gathering of new churches and peaceable partition, this territory has been divided, and out of the original Newtowne have been formed, besides the present Cambridge, Billerica, Bedford, Lexington, Arlington, Brighton and Newton. Governors Dudley and Bradstreet removed to Ipswich, and Simon Willard went to be the chief layman of Concord and a famous builder and defender of towns.
The rude houses of Hooker's congregation were bought by a newly arrived company, the flock of the Rev. Thomas Shepard. This firm but gentle leader, who left a deep impress on the habit of the town, was a youth of thirty one, and a graduate, like many of the Massachusetts leaders, of Emanuel College, at Cambridge. He came to New England with a company of earnest followers, actuated, as he wrote, by desire for "the fruition of God's ordinances. Though my motives were mixed, and I looked much to my own quiet, yet the Lord let me see the glory of liberty in New England, and made me purpose to live among God's people as one come from the dead to His praise." His brave young wife died "in unspeakable joy" only a fortnight after his settlement at Cambridge, and was soon followed by the chief man of his flock and his closest friend, Roger Harlakenden, another godly youth of the manly type of English pioneers. At once, too, Shepard was plunged into the stormy debates of the antinomian controversy which nearly caused a permanent division in the Congregational churches. The general election of 1637, which was held on the Common at Newtowne, was a tumultuous gathering, and discussion over the merits of "grace" and "works" ran high till John Wilson, minister of the Boston church, climbed up into a big oak tree, and made a speech which carried the day for John Winthrop to the confusion of the heretical disciples of Anne Hutchinson. Through these stormy waters Shepard steered his course so discreetly that he came into high favor among all people as a sound and vigilant minister, and Cotton Mather tells us that "it was with a respect unto this vigilancy and the enlightening and powerful ministry of Mr. Shepard, that, when the foundation of a college was to be laid, Cambridge, rather than any other place, was pitched upon to be the seat of that happy seminary."
The founding of Harvard College by the little colony was surely one of the most heroic, devout and fruitful events of American history. Upon the main entrance to the college grounds is written today an inscription taken from one of the earliest chronicles, entitled New England's First Fruits. We read that:
"After God had carried us safe to New England and wee had builded our houses and provided necessaries for our livelihood, reared convenient places for God's worship and settled the Civil Government, one of the next things we longed for and looked after was to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity, dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches when our present ministers shall lie in the dust."
Accordingly, on the 28th day of October, 1636, Sir Harry Vane - Milton's" Vane, young in years, but in sage counsel old" - being the Governor, the General Court of the colony passed the following memorable vote: "The Court agrees to give £400 towards a school or college, whereof £200 shall be paid the next year and £200 when the work is finished." In the following year this vote was supplemented by a further order that the college "is ordered to be at Newton, and that Newtowne shall henceforth be called Cambridge." This is the significant act that marks the distinction between the Puritan colony and all pioneer settlements based on material foundations. For a like spirit under like circumstances history will be searched in vain. Never were the bases of such a structure laid by a community of men so poor, and under such sullen and averted stars. The colony was nothing but a handful of settlers barely clinging to the wind swept coast; it was feeble and insignificant, in danger from Indians on the one hand and foreign foes on the other; it was in throes of dissension on the matter of heresy which threatened to divide it permanently, yet so resolved were the people that "the Commonwealth be furnished with knowing and understanding men and the churches with an able ministry," that they voted the entire annual income of the colony to establish a place of learning. Said Lowell:
"This act is second in real import to none that has happened in the Western hemisphere. The material growth of the colonies would have brought about their political separation from the mother country in the fulness of time, but the founding of the first college here saved New England from becoming a mere geographical expression. It did more, it insured our intellectual independence of the old world. That independence has been long in coming, but the chief names of those who have hastened its coming are written on the roll of Harvard College."
But even the self sacrificing zeal of the colonists would have been almost unavailing had it not been for the coming to Massachusetts at this time of a young Puritan minister, another graduate of Emanuel, upon whom death had already set his seal. Says the chronicler:
"As we were thinking and consulting how to effect this great work, it pleased God to stir up the heart of one Mr. John Harvard, a godly gentleman and a lover of learning then living amongst us, to bequeath the one half of his estate, in all about £1700, toward the erection of the college, and all his library."
Was ever a gift so marvellously multiplied as the bequest of this obscure young scholar? By this one decisive act of public spirited and well directed munificence this youth made for himself an imperishable name and enrolled himself among the foremost of the benefactors of humanity. In acknowledgment of Harvard's bequest the General Court voted in 1638 "that the College at Cambridge be called Harvard College."
It is the presence of the college that has given distinctive atmosphere to Cambridge. The character of the place has been determined by the fact that for more than two centuries and a half it has been the home of succeeding generations of men devoted not to trade and manufacture, but to the cultivation of the intellectual and spiritual elements in human life. Over the college gate stands an iron cross and upon the gate post is the seal of the college with "Veritas" written across its open books. The Harvard life and spirit and teaching are all adapted to lead young men to the love and service of truth and to send them out to a ministry as wide and varied as the needs of humanity. The influence of the scholars and teachers and administrators that have been drawn into the service of the college is paramount, even if it is unconsciously exercised and felt, in the community about the college. Here have always been inevitable in a town which is the resort of the chosen youth of the country, a healthy, wholesome independence of spirit and a high minded earnestness Here has always been the refined simplicity of life natural to a community composed of, or influenced by, men of quiet tastes and modest incomes. Here is that touch of sentiment which binds men to the place of their education and to the memories and friendships of youth. Here are the associations with great events and names which inspire patriotism and ambition of worthy service. Then, too, it has been said:
"Cambridge is an interesting place to live in because the poetry of Holmes, Longfellow and Lowell has touched with the light of genius some of its streets, houses, churches and graveyards, and made familiar to the imaginations of thousands of persons who never saw them, its rivers, marshes and bridges. It adds to the interest of living in any place that famous authors have walked in its streets, and loved its highways and byways, and written of its elms, willows and spreading chestnut tree,' of its robins and herons. The very names of Cambridge streets remind the dwellers in it of the biographies of Sparks, the sermons of Walker, the law books of Story, the orations of Everett, and the presidencies of Dunster, Chauncy, Willard, Kirkland and Quincy."
The place is not unworthy of the wealth of affection and poetic tribute that has been lavished upon it. The old Puritan church records, with their quaint entries about heresies and witchcraft, about ordinations where "four gallons of wine" and bushels of wheat and malt and hundredweights of beef and mutton were consumed, and about funerals conducted with solemn pomp; and the town records with notes about the "Palisadoe" and the Common rights and "the Cowyard" and the building of "The Great Bridge," a vast undertaking, have more than merely antiquarian interest, for they reveal the intelligent and sturdy democracy and broad principles of government upon which the American republic rests.
But if these ancient records seem uninviting, let the visitor turn to the annals of the stirring time of the Revolution. General Gage called Harvard College "that nest of sedition." In that nest were hatched John Hancock, James Otis, Samuel Adams, John Adams, Joseph Warren and many another of the patriot leaders. The town was the abode of many of the leading Tory families, but as early as 1765 the town meeting voted "that (with all humility) it is the opinion of the town that the inhabitants of this Province have a legal claim to all the natural, inherent, constitutional rights of Englishmen and, that the Stamp Act is an infraction upon these rights." And after an argument on the merits of the question it was further ordered "that this vote be recorded in the Town Book, that the children yet unborn may see the desire their ancestors had for their freedom and happiness." For the next ten years there is scarcely a proceeding in the preliminary debates and contests that led up to open revolution that is not illustrated in the resolutions recorded by the Cambridge town clerk. Vote followed vote, as the restrictive measures of Parliament irritated the townsmen, till at the town meeting of 1773 it was resolved "that this town - is ready on the shortest notice, to join with the town of Boston and other towns, in any measures that may be thought proper, to deliver ourselves and posterity from slavery." The 2d of September, 1774, just escaped the historic importance of April 19th in the next year. On that day several thousand men gathered on Cambridge Common and proceeded in orderly fashion to force the resignation of two of His Majesty's privy councillors, and then, marching up Brattle Street to the house of the Lieutenant Governor of the Province, Thomas Oliver, the house that was afterwards the home in succession of Elbridge Gerry, Rev. Charles Lowell and his son James Russell Lowell, they extorted from him, too, a pledge to resign. "My house in Cambridge," he wrote, "being surrounded by about four thousand men, I sign my nameThomas Oliver." Both the first and second of the Provincial Congresses met in Cambridge, and at last the running battle of April 19, 1775, swept through the borders of the town. Twenty six Americans were killed within the boundaries of Cambridge, six of them citizens of the place, and the American militia who followed the British retreat from Concord on that momentous evening lay on their arms at last on Cambridge Common.
For eleven months after Concord fight, Cambridge was a fortified camp. The college buildings, the Episcopal church and the larger houses were occupied as barracks. General Ward established his headquarters in the gambrel roofed house which was afterwards the birthplace of Oliver Wendell Holmes. On the lawn before the house, in the hush of the June evening, Prescott's men were drawn up, while President Langdon of the college, in cap and gown, prayed for the success of their arms ere they marched to Bunker Hill. Two weeks later Washington reached the camp, and on July 3d, under the spreading elm at the western end of the Common, unsheathed his sword and, as the inscription reads, "took command of the American Army." Washington lived for a while in the president's house, but soon made his headquarters in the fine old mansion of the Vassalls which was later the home of Longfellow.
After March, 1776, when Boston was finally evacuated by the British, Cambridge ceased to be involved in the military events of the Revolution, but in 1777 the captured troops of Burgoyne were quartered in the town, the soldiers swinging their hammocks in the college buildings and the officers occupying the deserted mansions of "Tory Row." Burgoyne lived in the house sometimes called, in derision of its first clerical occupant, "The Bishop's Palace," and Riedesel and his accomplished wife in the Lechmere house. "Never have I chanced," wrote Madame Riedesel, "upon such a charming situation," and never has our colonial life been more charmingly described than by this brave and vivacious German lady in the letters written from her pleasant prison to her distant home.
For fifty years after the Revolutionary epoch, Cambridge was a country town of quiet habits, its only distinguishing characteristic being the scholastic and literary atmosphere that hung about the college. It was a good place to be born in, and it was surely good to live in the place where Everett and Quincy ruled the academic world; where Longfellow wrote his poetry, and Palfrey his history, and Sparks his biographies; where Washington Allston painted and Margaret Fuller dreamed; where William Story and Richard Dana and Lowell and Holmes and the rest walked to church and stopped to gossip with the neighbors at the post office.
"No town in this country," says Thomas Wentworth Higginson, "has been the occasion of two literary descriptions more likely to become classic than two which bear reference to the Cambridge of fifty years ago. One of these is Lowell's well known Fireside Travels and the other is the scarcely less racy chapter in the Harvard Book, contributed by John Holmes, younger brother of the 'Autocrat.' "
To these happy descriptions we may now add the accounts of Colonel Higginson's boyhood in his Cheerful Yesterdays, and Dr. Holmes's loving story of his birthplace in the Poet at the Breakfast Table.
"Cambridge," wrote Lowell, "was still a country village with its own habits and traditions, not yet feeling too strongly the force of suburban gravitation. Approaching it from the west, by what was then called the New Road, you would pause on the brow of Symonds Hill to enjoy a view singularly soothing and placid. In front of you lay the town, tufted with elms, lindens, and horse chestnuts, which had seen Massachusetts a colony, and were fortunately unable to emigrate with the Tories, by whom, or by whose fathers, they were planted. Over it rose the noisy belfry of the College, the square, brown tower of the Episcopal Church, and the slim, yellow spire of the parish meeting house. On your right the Charles slipped smoothly through green and purple salt meadows, darkened here and there with the blossoming black grass as with a stranded cloud shadow. To your left upon the Old Road you saw some half dozen dignified old houses of the colonial time, all comfortably fronting southward. . . We called it 'the Village' then, and it was essentially an English village - quiet, unspeculative, without enterprise, sufficing to itself, and only showing such differences from the original type as the public school and the system of town government might superinduce. A few houses, chiefly old, stood around the bare common, with ample elbow room, and old women, capped and spectacled, still peered through the same windows from which they had watched Lord Percy's artillery rumble by to Lexington, or caught a glimpse of the handsome Virginia general who had come to wield our homespun Saxon chivalry. The hooks were to be seen from which had swung the hammocks of Burgoyne's captive red coats. If memory does not deceive me, women still washed clothes in the town spring, clear as that of Bandusia. One coach sufficed for all the travel to the metropolis."
Cambridge is no longer the idyllic village of Lowell's boyhood, but a great suburban city bustling with many activities. So rapid has been the growth that Lowell on his return from Europe in 1889 wrote:
"I feel somehow as if Charon had ferried me the wrong way, and yet it is into a world of ghosts that he has brought me. I hardly know the old road, a street now, that I have paced so many years, for the new houses. My old homestead seems to have a puzzled look in its eyes as it looks down, a trifle superciliously me thinks on these upstarts.
"The old English elms in front of my house haven't changed. A trifle thicker in the waist, perhaps, as is the wont of prosperous elders, but looking just as I first saw them seventy years ago, and it is balm to my eyes. I am by no means sure that it is wise to love the accustomed and familiar as much as I do, but it is pleasant and gives a unity to life which trying can't accomplish."
Cambridge is today the abode of as happy, comfortable and progressive a people as the world contains. It presents a unique example in this country of a city thoroughly well governed. It is now a quarter century since partisanship has been tolerated in city affairs. In the City Hall, erected under the administration of Mayor William E. Russell, who here got his training for the splendid service he afterward rendered to the State, and might, had his life been spared, have rendered to the nation, no liquor license has ever been signed. So excellent has been the record of successive nonpartisan administrations in the city that the very phrase, "The Cambridge Idea," has become well known even outside the limits of Massachusetts as signifying the conception of public office as a public trust and the conduct of municipal affairs on purely business principles. Yet in spite of its municipal expansion and business enterprises, Cambridge is still pre eminently the place where the lamp of learning is kept lighted. Though the college waxes great in numbers and its buildings multiply, and the jar of business invades the academic quiet, yet the purposes and habits of the scholar's life still distinguish the community. It is said that when Cambridge people are at a loss for conversation one asks the other, "How is your new book coming on?" and the question rarely fails to bring a voluble reply. There is an entire alcove in the City Library devoted to the works of Cambridge writers. "Brigadier Generals," said Howells, himself once a resident of the town, "were no more common in Washington during the Civil War than authors in Cambridge." It is an interesting illustration of the persistence of good tradition that the place where was established the first printing press in America, set up by Stephen Daye in 1639, should still be a centre of book production. Not only do John Fiske and Charles Eliot Norton and Thomas Wentworth H igginson and a score of others maintain the literary reputation of the place, but the great establishments of the Riverside Press, the University Press and the Athenaeums Press put forth a constant stream of high standard publications, and send a most characteristic Cambridge product all over the world. Still is Cambridge one of the shrines of pilgrimage. The antiquarians ponder over the mossy gravestones in the little "God's Acre" between the "Sentinel and Nun," as Dr. Holmes called the two church towers which front the college gate, and there they read the long inscriptions that tell the virtues of the first ministers of the parish and the early presidents of the college. The patriots come and stand under the Washington elm, or linger by the gates of the Craigie house or Elmwood, or pace the noble Memorial Hall, which declares how Harvard's sons died for their country, while visitors flock to the great museum which the genius and energy of Louis Agassiz upbuilt, and to the garden where Asa Gray taught and botanized. Thousands of men all over the country think of Cambridge with grateful love as they remember the years of their happy youth; and the citizens of the place, while they look backward with just pride, look forward with confidence that there is to be more of inspiring history and true poetry in the city's future than in its fortunate past.
Historic towns of New England
Return to History at Rays Place